The forgotten war heroes of Borneo

Mar 17, 2024

Many Australians are aware of the assistance Papuan New Guinea locals and Timorese locals gave allied forces in World War II. But few know of the assistance Borneo locals provided to Australians during both the Japanese occupation of the island and in the Allied effort to retake it. This extract from the book, Forgotten Heroes: The true story of Sarawak people who fought and died assisting Allied forces in WWII, recalls one story.

Only one sentence in the U.K. National Archives citations for awards to Borneo civilians in World War II, records the actions of a Chinese farmer, Phang Chung, from Semera, Sarawak.

“This man, a farmer who sheltered and fed two RAAF airmen thereby being directly instrumental for their escape from the Japanese, deserves the highest praise for his part in the allied cause.”

I thought I was well informed about Australian actions in Sarawak in World War II, having written a book on the subject, Kill the Major: the true story of the most successful Allied guerrilla war in Borneo. But I’d never heard of this rescue and nor had other researchers I contacted who had an interest in the subject.

I knew about American Liberator crashes and the rescue of the downed airmen. And I knew about the assistance locals provided to Prisoner of War escapees from the Sandakan-to-Ranau death marches. But who were these RAAF men and what was their story?

While noting that Phang Chung deserved the highest praise, the citation did not say when, or where the men fell into trouble, or how they managed to escape.

But as luck would have it the National Library’s Trove digitised collection of newspapers provided the answer. The Argus newspaper of 11 September 1945 reported the rescue and named the men. They were 28-year-old pilot, Flight-Lieutenant Vernon Sims of Deepdene, Victoria, and navigator, Flying Officer Reg Farrant of Cohuna Victoria, who played Australian Rules football for Hawthorn in 1940.

Their Beaufighter was shot down while making a rocket attack on a 1,500-ton freighter on the Sarawak River on 7 August, 1945. The airmen had crashed in thick, rotting vegetation, in a swamp on the outskirts of Sarawak’s capital Kuching.

During their first day they met a group of Malays who had tracked them down following the crash. Holding some of them up as hostages, Sims and Farrant tried to force the others to go and get a boat to take them across the wide, and fast flowing, Samarahan River.
But with times slipping away, and fearing that those they’d released might return with Japanese soldiers, they released their hostages and fled into the jungle.

The following day the airmen attracted the attention of a Malay boy, in a sampan. Awang Bakar willingly ferried them across the river and gave them coconuts, pineapple and some small, crisp biscuits to help them on their way.

Heading east, the jungle became very swampy and at times they were feet deep in water. Stopping for the night under a large tree, they could not sleep because of the mosquitos, heavy rain and cold.

In the crash Farrant suffered a head wound and injured his left leg. After five days wading through the thickly timbered swamps, and with both men getting little sleep during the night, he found walking impossible. Emerging from the swamps, the men found abandoned gardens and spotted two Chinese children, who ran away.

Following the children, they were led towards a house, but thankfully were intercepted by the Phang Chung, who indicated that they should follow him to his house. There they learnt that two armed Japanese were interrogating the inhabitants of the very house they had intended to approach.

With limited English, a half-Chinese, half-Dayak man, Anthony Bong, did what he could to interpret, but went off and returned with a half-Chinese, half Filippino youth, Vincent Usaraga, who spoke perfect English. The family fed them on fried eggs and gave up their beds so that the airmen could sleep. More than 50 friendly Chinese visited the airmen, taking them gifts of hard-boiled eggs.

Ten Japanese troops were reported to be in the area searching for the airmen and three were in a village two miles from their hiding place. On the afternoon of 12 August an ex-sergeant of the native constabulary, Nathan, and another constable, Sangtong, told them they had a perahu (a small boat) and were willing to smuggle them out.

Staying put in Japanese occupied territory was not an option. At a meeting of all the surrounding villages, the Japanese announced that a full-scale search of the area would be conducted. Were they to be discovered, all the villagers would suffer the severe consequences of harbouring allied fugitives.

After seven days in care, they committed to set off in Sangtong’s specially provisioned perahu on an ocean trip of over 500 kilometre north to Miri where the AIF’s 2/13th Battalion had landed and was in control of the territory. The men planned to evade the Japanese by hiding under wicker mats in the perahu.

Nathan’s sampan was sent ahead. Should it be stopped and searched, the perahu would turn around. As they moved down to the mouth of the river, they were spotted by the Japanese. Surprisingly, the Japanese allowed the sampan to pass unimpeded, but unexpectedly stopped the perahu.

Sims told Argus reporter, Graham Jenkins, that the thirty seconds they were stopped while the Japanese interrogated their crew seemed like years. But Sangtong managed to convinced the Japanese that he was going fishing.

Nathan was paid-off with five dollars and the airmen set off on their journey north with Sangtong, Anthony and a son of the native police sergeant. On the open sea the perahu was blown ashore in a heavy storm, delaying their progress for two days.

In the following days they were becalmed and forced to row. On 21 August, two weeks after they were shot down, they arrived in Miri, where an AIF-captain produced a welcome bottle of beer.

Unbeknown to Sims and Farrant, a week earlier — on 15 August — Emperor Hirohito had announced Japan’s surrender. Nevertheless, they had escaped through hostile territory. It was not until 10 September that the Supreme Commander of Japanese forces in Borneo, Lieutenant General Maso Baba, flew to Labuan Island in Brunei Bay and surrendered to Major General George Wootten, General Officer Commanding the 9th Division. The Kuching garrison commander, Major General Yamamura, surrendered the following day.

After the war the Australian government financially rewarded a number of people who assisted the airmen. Sims and Farrant presumably nominated Phang Chung for the King’s Medal, but the award should be seen as an honour for the whole community that enabled the airmen’s escape.

In 1966, Sims, then living in East St Kilda, Melbourne, met and thanked visiting Colombo Plan Malayan student, Vincent Usaraga, the man who, then aged 15, had interpreted for him and Farrant at the Semera settlement.

This is an extract from Paul Malone’s book Forgotten Heroes: The true story of Sarawak people who fought and died assisting Allied forces in WWII, published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, Gerakbudaya, Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2024 .

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